Spain’s controversial attempt to confront its painful past – POLITICO
MADRID — In Spain, memory is a divisive issue.
The Coalition Government’s Democratic Memory Law, which aims to tackle the legacy of Francisco Franco’s brutal dictatorship, could be approved by a narrow majority in parliament on Thursday.
But memories of more recent ETA violence have hampered the project, with critics saying the bill can only pass parliament because Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez struck a deal with the terror group’s heirs Basque. It bolstered longstanding claims by opponents of the socialist leader that he panders to hardline nationalism and sparked a revolt within his own party.
The new law states that its general objective is to repay “a debt that Spanish democracy has to its past” by ensuring that the state “assumes responsibility for the acts of the past in their entirety, rehabilitating the memory of the victims, repairing the damage caused and avoid the repetition of clashes and any justification of totalitarian regimes”.
To that end, the bill outlaws the 1936 coup that sparked the Civil War and ultimately installed Franco in power, as well as his four decades of dictatorship. It also seeks to eliminate aristocratic titles linked to the regime and to include accounts of Franco’s repression in school textbooks.
In addition, there will be a campaign of support for the victims of the regime and their relatives, with the State taking responsibility for identifying and exhuming those buried in mass graves and collecting testimonies in a specially created office.
Perhaps the law’s most eye-catching feature is its 1977 amnesty approach, adopted two years after Franco’s death, which prevented those responsible for his regime from being prosecuted for human rights abuses. The bill opens the door to an interpretation of amnesty that could change that.
Former Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose own 2007 memory law would be updated by this legislation, said the bill “perfects” Spanish democracy, “because it recognizes those who have been forgotten”.
“We shouldn’t be at all afraid to look at our most recent past or the distant past.”
But it is the recent past that is the most controversial.
The new law also allows the investigation of crimes against human rights committed between 1978, the year of the introduction of the democratic constitution, and 1983. This amendment was proposed by EH Bildu, a Basque independence party far-left party seen as the successor to the political wing of ETA, which disbanded in 2018. The party is among those who have long argued that Spain’s much-vaunted transition to democracy was deeply wrongful, as, for example, it enabled the use of state terrorism against ETA suspects and police brutality. against Basque militants.
Mertxe Aizpurua, spokesperson for EH Bildu, said the new Democratic Memory Law “has paved the way for the narrative of an exemplary [democratic] transition.”
The coalition government needs the support of a range of parties to pass the Democratic Memory Law and, with the support of EH Bildu seemingly assured, it appears to be safe. But the backlash against the 1978-83 amendment and the government’s reliance on EH Bildu, which many still consider synonymous with Eta, was fierce.
The leader of the conservative opposition People’s Party (PP), Alberto Núñez Feijóo, pledged to roll back the law when he took office, describing his time in parliament as “an episode unworthy of Spanish democracy”.
“We accept that the figureheads of this terrorism sit in institutions, but it is repugnant to us that they dictate to democratic government the terms of our democratic memory,” he said.
The arrival of the law in Congress comes at a particularly sensitive time. This week marks the 25th anniversary of the abduction and murder by ETA of Miguel Ángel Blanco, a young adviser to the PP, in what is considered the most notorious of the group’s more than 850 killings. On Sunday, Sánchez, Feijóo and King Felipe were among those who attended a tribute to Blanco in his Basque hometown of Ermua.
Right-wing opposition to the new legislation was predictable, given that it has tended to dismiss historical memory initiatives on the grounds that they unnecessarily dig up the past. However, there were also divisions within the ranks of Sánchez’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).
Javier Lambán, president of the PSOE of the Aragon region, is one of these voices, expressing his indignation that the new law allows investigations into the events that took place after the introduction of democracy.
“If this were proposed by any other political group, it would be worrying because it is a way of undermining the democratic transition,” he said. “But when it is put forward by [EH] Bildu is cruel sarcasm that I would never consider acceptable.
A group of veteran PSOE politicians have signed a manifesto against the law, saying it “distorts” the 1978 constitutional pact.
José Pablo Ferrándiz, head of public opinion in Spain for polling firm Ipsos, said the episode struck a chord.
“The idea that the transition to democracy has been exemplary and should be a source of pride remains embedded in the collective unconscious of Spaniards,” he said.
The baggage surrounding the Democratic Memory Legislation carries electoral risk for Sánchez, he added.
“Conservative socialist voters have never felt comfortable with the pacts the government has made with Catalan pro-independence parties or with Basque pro-independence parties like EH Bildu,” Ferrándiz said.
With a general election scheduled for late 2023, Sánchez hopes this episode will not demobilize socialist voters.
Polls suggest that the PSOE had already slipped behind the PP, which was boosted by the new leadership of Feijóo, before the controversy around the memory law.
With the cost of living crisis refusing to go away and a litany of public strife within his coalition, accusations that Sánchez cut a deal that unravels Spain’s cherished democratic transition have hit a prime minister which is already fighting for its political survival.